2023 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

Death on a Dairy Farm

About the Project

When Jefferson Rodriguez was fatally run over late one night in 2019 on a Wisconsin dairy farm, the death was declared an accident and the case was closed. The sheriff’s office blamed the boy’s father, an immigrant from Nicaragua, and that’s how the English-speaking public came to understand the boy’s death.

ProPublica reporters examined what actually took place and discovered that another worker – on his first day at the farm, and with little training – had accidentally run the child over with a 7,500-pound skid steer. Authorities came to the wrong conclusion due to a severe language barrier between deputies and the boy’s father. In our story, we showed not only this failure by law enforcement, but also the systematic failures that led to an immigrant child living in a barn on an unsafe farm far from his home in Central America.

We obtained hundreds of records from local, state and federal authorities to document the circumstances of Jefferson’s death, the failures of local officials to fully investigate what happened as well as the conditions on the farm, in addition to records documenting language failures between law enforcement and workers at dozens of other farms across the state. We interviewed more than 100 people, including the boy’s parents, the worker who accidentally killed Jefferson, and the sheriff’s deputy who failed to fully comprehend the grieving, hysterical father. In addition, we spoke with other workers, people who knew the family, local farmers, interpreters, state and local officials, law enforcement officials, safety experts, and attorneys. We collected the context, perspective and details about the community law enforcement did not.

When we published the story, we also put out a broader call for help to readers with information about the dairy industry. We wrote different callouts for readers in English and in Spanish; the first addressed industry insiders, farmers, medical professionals, educators, inspectors and other professionals who have access to dairy farms and their employees. The callout generated responses from dozens of people offering to share their knowledge of and experience in the industry. The Spanish-language callout is intended to deepen our relationship with the community. We repackaged the callout into booklets we printed of the story in Spanish, and separate flyers which we have distributed across rural Wisconsin, leading to dozens of conversations with workers.

Our story also prompted local officials to express horror at what we reported. Those officials told us they are looking for ways to improve language access at the sheriff’s department. We plan to continue monitoring local response to this investigation.